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A SONG OF LIBERTY (C. 1792), §§ 1-3, 12, 18-20, AND
V VERSES FROM
"MILTON" (ENGRAVED Č. 1804)
I. ORTHODOXY AND CLASSICISM QUIESCENT
The clearest portrayal of the prominent features of an age may sometimes be seen in poems which reveal what men desire to be rather than what they are; and which express sentiments typical, even commonplace, rather than individual. John Pomfret's Choice (1700) is commonplace indeed; it was never deemed great, but it was remarkably popular. “No composition in our language," opined Dr. Johnson, "has been oftener perused,”-an opinion quite incredible until one perceives how intimately the poem harmonizes with the prevalent mood of its contemporary readers. It was written by a clergyman (a circumstance not insignificant); its form is the heroic couplet; its content is a wish for a peaceful and civilized mode of existence. And what is believed to satisfy that longing? A life of leisure; the necessaries of comfort plentifully provided, but used temperately; a country-house upon a hillside, not too distant from the city; a little garden bordered by a rivulet; a quiet study furnished with the classical Roman poets; the society of a few friends, men who know the world as well as books, who are loyal to their nation and their church, and whose conversation is intellectually vigorous but always polite; the occasional companionship of a woman of virtue, wit, and poise of manner; and, above all, the avoidance of public or private contentions. Culture and peace—and the greater of these is peace! The sentiment characterizes the first quarter of the eighteenth century.
The poets of that period had received an abundant heritage from the Elizabethans, the Cavaliers, Dryden, and Milton. It was a poetry of passionate love, chivalric honor, indignant satire, and sublime faith. Much of it they admired, but their admiration was tempered with fear. They heard therein the tones of violent generations, of men whose intensity, though yielding extraordinary beauty and grandeur, yielded also obscurity and extravagance; men whom the love of women too often impelled to utter fantastic hyperbole, and the love of honor to glorify preposterous adventures; quarrelsome men, who assailed their opponents with rancorous personalities; doctrinaires, who employed their fiery energy of mind in the creation of rigid systems of religion and government; uncompromising men, who devoted to the support of those systems their fortunes and lives, drenched the land in the blood of a civil war, executed a king, presently restored his dynasty, and finally exiled it again, thus maintaining during half a century a general insecurity of life and property which checked the finer growths of civilization. Their successors trusted that the compromise of 1688 had reduced political and sectarian affairs to a state of calm equilibrium; and they desired to cultivate the fruits of serenity by fostering in all things the spirit of moderation. In poetry, as in life, they tended more and more to discountenance manifestations of vehemence. Even the poetry of Dryden, with its reflections of the stormy days through which he had struggled, seemed to them, though gloriously leading the way toward perfection, to fall short of equability of temper and smoothness of form. To work like Defoe's True-Born Englishman (1701) and Hymn to the Pillory (1703), combative in spirit and free in style, they gave only guarded and temporary approval.
Inevitably the change of mood entailed losses. Sir Henry Wotton's Character of a Happy Life (c. 1614) treats the same theme as Pomfret's Choice ; but Pomfret's contemporaries were rarely if ever visited by such gleams as shine in Wotton's lines describing the happy man as one
who never understood How deepest wounds are given by praise,
and as one
Who God doth late and early pray
Such touches of penetrative wisdom and piety, like many other precious qualities, are of an age that had passed. In the poetry of 1700–1725, religion forgoes mysticism and exaltation; the intellectual life, daring and subtlety; the imagination, exuberance and splendor. Enthusiasm for moral ideals declines into steadfast approval of ethical principles. Yet these were changes in tone and manner rather than in fundamental views. The poets of the period were conservatives. They were shocked by the radicalism of Mandeville, the Nietzsche of his day, who derided the generally accepted moralities as shallow delusions, and who by means of a clever fable supported a materialistic theory which implied that in the struggle for existence nothing but egotism could succeed:
Fools only strive
Obloquy buried him; he was a sensational exception to the rule. As a body, the poets of his time retained the orthodox traditions concerning God, Man, and Nature.
Their theology is evidenced by Addison, Watts, and Parnell. It is a Christianity that has not ceased to be stern and majestic. In Addison's Divine Ode, the planets of the firmament proclaim a Creator whose power knows no bounds. In the hymns of Isaac Watts, God is as of old a jealous God, obedience to whose eternal will may require the painful sacrifice of temporal earthly affections, even the sacrifice of our love for our fellow-creatures; a just God, who by the law of his own nature cannot save unrepentant sin from eternal retribution; yet an adored God, whose providence protects the faithful amid stormy vicissitudes,
Under the shadow of whose throne
The saints have dwelt secure, Spirits as gentle and kindly as Parnell insist that the only approach to happiness lies through a religious discipline of the feelings, and protest that death is not to be feared but welcomed—as the passage from a troublous existence to everlasting peace. In most of the poetry of the time, religion, if at all noticeable, is a mere undercurrent; but whenever it rises to the surface, it reflects the ancient creed.
Traditional too is the general conception of human character. Man is still thought of as a complex of lofty and mean qualities, widely variable in their proportion yet in no instance quite dissevered. To interpret-not God or Nature—but this self-contradictory being, in both his higher and his lower manifestations and possibilities, remains the chief vocation of the poets. They have not ceased the endeavor to lend dignity to life by portraying its nobler features. Addison, in The Campaign, glorifies the national hero whose brilliant victories thwarted the great monarch of France on his seemingly invincible career toward the hegemony of Europe, the warrior Marlborough, serene of soul amid the horror and confusion of battle. Tickell, in his noble elegy on Addison, not only, while voicing his own grief, illustrates the beauty of devoted friendship, but also, when eulogizing his subject, holds up to admiration, as a type to be revered, the wise moralist, cultured and versatile man of letters, and adept in the art of virtuous life. Pope, in the most ambitious literary effort of the day, his translation of the Iliad, labors to enrich the treasury of English poetry with an epic that sheds radiance upon the ideals and manners of an heroic age. In such attempts to exalt the grander phases of human existence, the poets were, however, owing to their fear of enthusiasm, never quite successful. It is significant that though most critics consider Pope's Homer no better than a mediocre performance, none denies that his Rape of the Lock is, in its kind, perfection.
Here, as in the vers de société of Matthew Prior and Ambrose Philips, the age was illuminating with the graces of poetry something it really understood and delighted in,the life of leisure and fashion; and here, accordingly, is its most original and masterly work. The Rape of the Lock is the product of a society which had the good sense and good breeding to try to laugh away incipient quarrels, and which greeted with airy banter the indiscreet act of an enamoured young gallant, -the kind of act which vulgarity meets with angry lampoons or rude violence. The poem is an idyll